The Basics of Stir-Fry -Stir-Fry 101

Published on March 24, 2023 | Updated on July 17, 2024 | by Allen Bixby

If you’re anything like us, you love a good stir-fry. But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our home cooked stir-fry just don’t taste as good as the ones we get at restaurants.

We at love to breakdown, explore, and then share with you how these things are done.  With a little bit of know-how, you will make delicious stir-fries right in your own kitchen. Keep reading to learn the basics of stir-fry and get some practical tips for making these amazing dishes at home.

What is stir-fry and its history

Ancient China in 5th century

Stir-fry, which has become an integral part of many cultures’ cuisines around the world, can be traced back to ancient China as early as the 5th century BC.

The technique is simple and efficient: food is quickly cooked in a large wok with oil at high temperatures.  This is in part a fuel saving process by creating a small contained hot fire for brief period of time and quickly cooking food cut into small pieces. The ubiquitous wok is designed to take advantage of this by providing a very hot core surface.

Aromatics such as garlic and ginger are added first before ingredients such as sliced vegetables and meat, adding ingredients based on the cooking time needed. Add in some sauce components for a finishing touch of flavor. There are countless variations to this technique that have developed over centuries, depending on regional ingredients and preferences.

The key ingredients in a good stir-fry dish

Creating a classic stir-fry can seem intimidating, but the key is to understand the basic rules of making them. The first ingredients to most stir-fry are good quality proteins, such as beef, chicken, seafood, or even tofu, with loads of fresh vegetables. Consider adding flavor enhancers like shallots, peppers, garlic or ginger for an extra layer of flavor, then add liquid or broth for some moisture and sweetness. Finally, don’t forget a few additional elements like chilis or sesame seeds to really elevate the dish. With these basics in mind, you’ll be able to make a delectable stir-fry meal any night of the week!

The equipment you need to make a perfect stir-fry dish

Chef cooking in wok with tong

To ensure your stir-fry is easily and quickly cooked, there’s certain equipment you’ll want to have on hand. For starters, you’ll need a wok, or a large sauté pan with high sides, that can accommodate plenty of ingredients. This will help cook without overcrowding and will also provide enough room for those golden-brown edges we all love so much. Additionally, make sure you have a good set of wooden spoons or some tongs on hand. Use these to keep the food moving, remember “stir” fry. The movement will prevent food from sticking to the bottom of your pan or scorching while letting it get well colored.

The steps involved in making a delicious stir-fry meal

Stir-fry is one of the classic, quintessential Asian cooking techniques. That means a great quick and easy meal for you to make at home. To begin, it really is important to have all the ingredients measured out, cut, chopped, and prepped beforehand so that everything can move quickly when it’s time to cook.

When you are ready, you start by heating oil in your pan or wok over medium to medium-high heat, then add in your chosen proteins (chicken, shrimp, etc.), cooking for just a couple minutes. Next, incorporate your vegetable selections into the dish -bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, or whatever you have in the fridge. Utilize the shape of the pan by pushing ingredients away from the hot center and up the sides as you add each new ingredient.  Finally, the sauces!

Here’s where you get to be creative. Try out different combinations of sweet and savory like Hoisin sauce and soy sauce, sherry and oyster sauce, chili sauce or oil, rice wine or even rice wine vinegar for some tang. Cook all these ingredients together until everything is evenly heated through before removing from heat and serving over a bed of steamed rice to soak up your sauce. This is how you whip up an effortless yet yummy stir-fry dinner right at home…no takeout necessary.

Some of the best dishes to try at home

There are plenty of easy stir fry recipes for beginners, but if you’re looking to get a bit more creative, there are some classic dishes that will definitely impress. Popular meals include General Tso’s chicken, beef and broccoli with black pepper sauce, and Kung Pao chicken. Here’s the basics for each of these dishes.

General Tso’s chicken

General Tso’s Chicken is a classic stir-fry dish that packs a flavorful punch. To make it, you’ll need boneless chicken thighs or breasts (dark meat is best), garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and of course General Tso’s sauce. Start by marinating the chicken in a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar and a bit of sesame oil for at least 20 minutes (longer if desired).

While the chicken is marinating, prepare all your other ingredients. Mince the garlic and ginger, chop any veggies you’re using, and measure out any sauces needed. Once everything is ready to go, heat up some oil in your pan over medium-high heat. When hot enough, add in the chicken pieces and cook until golden brown before removing them from the pan and setting aside.

Next cook the vegetables you’d like, bell peppers and onions are traditional, then pour in your prepped General Tso’s sauce.

Let all these flavors simmer together until bubbly before returning the cooked chicken back into the pan to warm through. Ready to serve and enjoy.

Beef and Broccoli with Black Pepper Sauce

Making a delicious beef and broccoli stir-fry with black pepper sauce is a tasty way to enjoy a Chinese style meal at home.

Start by prepping your ingredients of thinly sliced the beef, minced garlic and ginger. Measure out your sauces then set them aside until ready to cook. Heat some oil in a pan or wok over medium heat and once hot, add in the beef slices. Stir-fry until lightly browned before adding in any vegetables you’d like; bell peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms work especially well here.

Sautee these together for two minutes before adding in your garlic and ginger as well as soy sauce, oyster sauce and black pepper sauce. Let all these flavors simmer together while stirring occasionally.

Finally, when everything is cooked through, remove from heat and serve this savory dish over steamed rice.

Kung Pao Chicken

Kung Pao chicken is a popular Chinese stir-fry dish that packs a flavorful punch. It features juicy chunks of chicken cooked with a savory sauce and usually served with steamed white rice.

The key to making great Kung Pao chicken lies in the balance of flavors between the sauce, veggies and protein. Here is an easy walk through of how to make this classic stir-fry dish right at home.

First, as you’ve seen above, prepare all your ingredients. Thinly slice the chicken, mince the garlic and ginger, chop any vegetables you’d like to add (such as bell peppers, zucchini or mushrooms), and measure out your sauces. Mix together one tablespoon of soy sauce, two tablespoons of oyster sauce and one tablespoon of black bean paste for the Kung Pao sauce base.

Heat some oil in a pan or wok over medium high heat then add in the sliced pieces of chicken. Stir-fry until lightly browned (does not need to be fully cooked) before adding in any vegetables. Sautee these together for two minutes before adding in your minced garlic and ginger as well as your prepped Kung Pao sauce base.

Let all these flavors simmer together while stirring occasionally –it should take around 5 minutes for everything to fully cook through. It really is that easy, serve and enjoy.

Now you have seen that in just a few simple steps you can create restaurant quality dishes right at home, just like our mantra; no takeout (NTO) necessary.

Dos and don’ts to know about stir-frying

Stir-frying is a great way to quickly bring together tasty ingredients for a flavorful dish, but it’s important to keep a few dos and don’ts in mind. When stir-frying, remember that higher heat is best used to cook thinly sliced meat and correctly sliced vegetables. Larger quantities of delicate ingredients can be cooked at a lower temperature; however, it is very important not to overcrowd the pan. This can result in steaming your food rather than sautéing it.

To ensure even cooking, make sure all items are cut into the same size; this will allow each ingredient to cook quickly and evenly. Lastly, don’t forget to season your dish -an easy mix of sugar, salt, pepper and soy sauce added in at the end can take your stir-fry from good to great!

Keep in mind that high heat equals rapid cooking so you can use less oil. Be aware that too low will burn your food. Different oils have different smoke point , so use a high temp resistant oil like peanut oil.

About the Author Allen Bixby

A retired restaurateur, not quite ready to stop playing in the kitchen.

I have had the pleasure of watching amazing high end chefs, and classic American style diner cooking, creating a very diverse background with food. Add both parents teaching English, watching Julia Childs and Graham Kerr as a child, and learning to bake bread from my Finnish great grandma, and you get a decent recipe for a knowledgeable voice to write about food.

From recipe design to equipment testing, there is a broad spectrum of entertaining aspects of food and how we do what we do every day to feed our loved ones!

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